Our tastebuds are unique

2013-11-07 00:00

THERE never has been, and never will be, another you. It is remarkable that no two individuals are identical — not even identical twins are absolute replicas of each other. This uniqueness is also seen in the taste receptor cells within our tastebuds. It is strange but true that when your family sits down to eat a meal, each member of the family is having a slightly different taste experience. No wonder pleasing everyone’s palate is an impossible task.

There are myriad factors that influence food choices. As a dietitian, I am acutely aware that my food choices are not always guided solely by what is good for me, but rather by what tastes appealing. Food’s nutritional value and health benefits are not always the winning deciders. Taste is one of the most significant factors in making food choices, and research is showing fascinating genetic differences in how we all perceive this sense.

Tastebuds are clusters of taste receptor cells positioned on the tongue, palate, pharynx, larynx and oesophagus. The vast array of flavours that we are able to enjoy are all perceived by variations in five different tastes — bitter, sweet, salty, sour and “umami” (savoury).

Bitter taste: Children often reject foods or drinks with a strong bitter taste. Foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, and grapefruit all rank high on the bitter scale. Other foods that also have strong bitter components are sharp cheeses, soya sauce, green tea, coffee and beer. Bitter taste perception is a genetically variable trait and about 75% of the human population is able to perceive bitterness. They are classified as “tasters”. However about 25% of the population are called “non-tasters”, as they are not sensitive to the bitter compounds in commonly bitter foods. Among the tasters, some individuals are classified as “super-tasters” and are extremely sensitive to bitter compounds. They therefore tend to avoid many of these foods. Women who are non-tasters have been shown to have higher body mass indices (BMI) and non-taster children have a higher incidence of dental cavities. This could be due to the increased intake of fatty and sugary foods while avoiding bitter foods.

Sweet taste: Sweet substances are perceived as pleasant and the tastebuds responsible for tasting sweet flavours are clustered separately from the bitter tastebuds on the tongue. Genetic variation in this group of tastebuds is responsible for some individuals having a “sweet tooth” versus others who never over-indulge in sweet foods. Those who have an enhanced perception of sweet taste will happily pass up on the dessert menu and tend to consume fewer sugary foods and drinks.

Umami taste: “Umami” is used to describe a meaty, savoury flavour. It comes from a Japanese term meaning “good taste” or “delicious”. Umami tastes are found naturally in a wide variety of vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms and carrots as well as fish, seafood, meat and cheese. The heightened ability to taste savoury flavours has been shown to increase preference for protein foods in adults.

Salt taste: Obese adults tend to eat a higher amount of foods classified as salty. Often higher salt foods are also higher fat foods (such as crisps and salted nuts). The variation in ability to taste salt is not strongly linked to a genetic variation, but rather by environmental influence such as exposure to high levels of salt. This is an important factor to remember when preparing meals at home. As we use less cooking and table salt, we reduce our salt intake and desire.

Sour taste: The presence of acids such as vinegar and wine cause the sour taste to be emphasised. As with salty foods, the perception of sourness in a food is not associated with much genetic variance.

When it comes to making healthy food choices, our genes certainly play a role in what we choose from the sweet, savoury and bitter food categories. Understanding why we prefer the foods we do is the first step to making informed and healthier decisions. The next step is making healthy adjustments to old favourites without compromising on taste!

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